The avant garde metal and glass interior of the Fernando Zobel train station was the last thing we expected when we disembarked after our 45 min. high speed train journey from Madrid.
A nagging feeling that we had inadvertently got off at the wrong station persisted as we climbed into the lone taxi out front and sped through open countryside and through the 20th century streetscape of the new town and right until we crossed a bridge across a dramatic gorge and cruised to a stop beside the 16th century Convento de San Pablo, now the Parador de Cuenca, our home for the night. Our room wasn’t ready yet, so we decided to set off to explore the Cuenca we had come to see just across a vertiginous pedestrian bridge near the Parador: the puenta San Pablo.
Originally an 8th century Moorish fortification, Cuenca (from the Arab Kunka) see-sawed between Arab and Christian control for centuries before capitulating to Castilian rule in 1127. Subsequent prosperity from trade in textiles prompted an influx of population evident from the mostly vertical structures practically spilling over the rim of the precipice it straddles. Later, civil war and French occupation inflicted severe hardship as did the Spanish inquisition. That the historic walled town survived centuries of such tumultuous history earned it UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996.
The Casa Colgadas (Hanging Houses) are Cuenca’s main draw. But its picturesque location on top of a rocky escarpment overlooking that steep, stunning gorge carved out by the Júcar and Huécar rivers is a compelling enough reason to visit. And despite the distinct absence of grand monuments so typical of medieval fortified Spanish cities, it is the organic architecture that blends harmoniously with the rugged landscape that held the largest appeal for me.
The Casa Colgadas themselves are integrated beautifully into the cliff walls, with delicate wooden balconies suspended precariously over the steep ravine. That there are just three left is a bit of an anti climax however, and made me wish for a time machine to have been able to witness a cliffside encrusted with similar dwellings. The three casas, picked up by the authorities for a pittance, are now leased to the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español set up by Filipino artist Fernando Zobel. Its fabulous abstract art collection juxtaposed with those dramatic views make for a remarkable museum experience.
Stumbling upon well curated museums in the most unexpected places is part of the charm of wandering small towns in Europe, but I hardly expected to find as many as we did in Cuenca, with collections displayed with as much sensitivity to the historic architecture as the architecture to the landscape. Sadly, the Museo Diocesano and the Fundación Antonio Pérez were all that we had time for apart from the aforementioned abstract art museum.
The Plaza Mayor dominated by the Town Hall and the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Gracia is more of a thoroughfare than a typical Spanish plaza. We broke our cardinal rule about not eating in touristy town squares (anywhere) and paid for it. Our dinner in Fugon de Huecar that night, with breathtaking views of the parador lording over that spectacular gorge, more than made up for the disastrous lunch. Especially when followed by dessert and coffee in the atmospheric cloister of the old convent to the rich, warm tones of live violin music.